CALVIN CREATES DANGER
CONSTRUCTION OF THE MIRROR BEGAN in fall of the previous year, and by its completion at the beginning of summer it stretched down 7.2 miles of sidewalk from Calvin’s front door to the entrance of the building where he worked. The mirror blocked storefronts and doorways, and cut off roads at crosswalks. Soaring four stories high, it blinded the windows of whole apartment buildings. Businesses behind the mirror folded, and the city had to reroute traffic around either end. A team of two hundred workers polished the mirror to a spotless shine every morning before dawn. The sun’s first rays prismed through a Windex mist and glared doubly bright off the glass. Nobody slept past sunrise.
Calvin strolled to work, stopping every few yards to look at his reflection. He straightened his tie and pinched up the center part of his hair, the tight curled locks there longer than the rest, rising to a point like a tiara. His widow’s peak was more peaked than it used to be. He applied foam and lathered with special shampoo, but still the hairline crept back a little bit each year, at the same pace as the gray that infiltrated the black of the hair itself. The fallout used to worry him, but he considered it fair trade for the state of his skin, still as rich and dark as ever, the only creases on his brow, marks he considered dignifying. After grinning at himself and receiving the same grin back from his reflection, Calvin continued on his way.
At midday, he took lunch on a bus stop bench, sitting backward to face the mirror, legs folded under him like when he’d taken yoga years before. It had only been two sessions, but he was a quick learner, and really how hard was it to strike a pose, anyway.
In his backpack, besides the prepackaged salad he ate for lunch, he carried two 24-ounce bottles of Dasani, two combs, a pair of expensive sunglasses her never thought to wear, and several silk hankies with which he dabbed at the shiny spots on his brow and in the indentations on either side of his nose. He pulled out one of the waters and gulped down half the contents. In the mirror, his reflection drank from a bottle labeled .Das Calvin lifted himself from lotus to standing and continued on his way. ani
By the time he strode into the office, his coworkers were gathering their belongings to leave. He never commented on it, but they all looked haggard, poor posture and drawn faces. Calvin sat at his desk and waved goodbye. He never balked at staying late. When the office was empty, he refilled his water bottles in the breakroom sink. Calvin turned off the lights and returned to the street for the long walk home.
The sun had set. Calvin’s reflection showed like a shadow on the mirror’s surface. The crisp creases of his pants and the tight cut of his jacket looked fuzzy in the orange light from the streetlamps. The hushed rumble of a car engine came from behind, and the headlights flashed bright in the mirror, blinding him. He stopped and blinked until he could see again.
Calvin made it home in time to watch the television anchors say goodnight after the eleven o’clock news. The Asian anchor he had once spotted on his way to work, in reflection on the other side of the street, walking quickly with her collar turned up. He wasn’t actually sure it was her, but he told everyone that he’d seen her. He left off the part about it being from a distance and in a mirror. Any story he told, he made it sound as if it happened at a party.
Calvin disrobed and hung his dirty suit in a closet reserved specifically for the hanging of dirty suits, where they were kept until every other Tuesday, when he took them to the cleaners across the street from the mid-point of the mirror. He washed his face and shaved, which he always did at night so the right amount of stubble would scruff his cheeks come morning. The old mirror on the medicine cabinet hung askew on its hinges, black splotches creeping in behind the glass, so he never used it while he shaved, trusting his touch to tell him when his face was smooth. He climbed into bed, bleach-white sheets that barely gave under his weight, as if they were made of butcher’s paper. After a long day on his feet, he fell asleep immediately.
Next morning, the faucet of the sky opened up. Calvin called a taxi. Inside, it smelled as damp as the weather. Sitting with as little of his person touching the seat as possible, he instructed the driver to take a slow pace parallel to the mirror. He told the driver to go even slower. The driver rode the breaks, a faint squeal accompanying every inch of progress. Traffic backed up behind the taxi, but Calvin heard the horns as if from a distance. The reflection of the cars made no sound at all.
Calvin’s eyes hardly left the eyes of his mirror image, only sometimes glancing down to the satisfied grin that pursed his lips, puckered as if he were about to kiss himself. He might have done just that, but he fretted smudging the mirror. And he was in a taxi. Even when he stood right beside the mirror, if he got too close, his breath fogged the glass.
That night, Calvin’s dreamed in the third person, with him watching himself as if in a mirror, but the reflected version of the dream Calvin was oriented rightward, not in mirror image, and was indistinct like in a darkened window. When the real version of the dream Calvin walked away, the reflection stayed put. The rest of the mirror’s surface sulked black and lusterless.
His walk to work the next morning was halted by a small smudge marring the mirror at what used to be the intersection with Rembrandt Avenue. Below it, in the crosswalk, and reflected in the mirror image of the crosswalk, lay a motionless bird. A starling, thought Calvin, though he could only name a couple birds by sight and the starling was not one of them. He pulled a silk hanky from his backpack and wiped the mirror, but the smudge wouldn’t come clean. He spat on the hanky and wiped again. Normally, the thought of spit on the mirror would have disgusted him, but he had brushed his teeth twice that morning and flossed and swished Listerine for several minutes, until the burn got too intense to handle. Even then, he held it in for a few seconds longer. Calvin’s saliva was cleaner than water.
The spitty hanky did better than the dry hanky, but still the smudge remained. He would have to talk to city council about it. Maybe the cleaning crews could come twice a day. Calvin continued on his way.
He stopped and returned to the smudge and pulled out another silk hanky and wiped with small, vigorous strokes, like erasing a dark pencil mark. The smudge grew smaller. He pulled out another hanky, and wiped again. He went through every hanky in his backpack, and finally, with the last one, the last bit of the smudge wiped free. He smiled at himself, but then scowled. The mirror itself was clean, but the reflection of the dead maybe-starling sullied the otherwise crystalline image. Using all his hankies to buffer his hand from the filthy bird, he picked it up.
The bird shivered in his grip. He could feel it, even through the layers of hankies, trying to move its wings. It reminded him of a person stretching their arms after waking up. He carried the not-dead maybe-starling to a trashcan beside the now-abandoned Rembrandt Street bus stop and dropped it inside, still wrapped in silk.
Back at the mirror, Calvin smiled at himself again, but then scowled. The work of wiping away the smudge had summoned an oily sheen to his forehead and on either side of his nose, where he noticed new creases running down toward his mouth. The creases hadn’t been there the last time he looked closely. He reached into his backpack, but he’d used the last of his silk hankies. He walked home, only two miles, and washed his face in the sink. Before he left, he thought better of it and changed into a fresh suit.
By the time he got to work, everyone had already left for the evening and the office was dark. He had never turned on the lights before, only off. The action of the switch felt backwards, the mirror image of the usual motion. The light revealed a note on Calvin’s desk, penned in the boxy, all-upper-case print of his boss:
WHILE YOU DO MANAGE TO ARRIVE AT THE SAME TIME EVERY DAY, IT IS NOT THE TIME YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO ARRIVE. YOU HAVE INVENTED FOR YOURSELF AN INVERSE SCHEDULE. WE BELIEVE THAT BY BEING OPPOSITE TO THE REST OF THE STAFF, YOUR ACTIONS SERVE NOT TO ENHANCE BUT TO NULLIFY OUR DAILY PROGRESS. I WOULD SAY THAT WE HATE TO LET YOU GO, BUT YOUR PRESENCE IS AN INSUBSTATIAL THING. I DO NOT RUE THE AIR I EXHALE.
Calvin collected his things in a brown cardboard box he took from the supply closet. The box was printed with a black arrow and the words THIS SIDE UP, but Calvin taped the top and filled the box from the bottom.
Along the walk home, he set each item from the box in front of the mirror. Where once he had a single stapler, now he had two. His impressive collection of pencils, each sharpened to an infinitesimal point, when subjected to doubling, seemed enough to last a lifetime. The framed photograph of his mother became, in the mirror, the framed photograph of his reflection’s mother. Her drooping eye was on the wrong side, as was the small wavy scar on her cheek. She carried her purse on the opposite shoulder, and gestured with her ringed right hand toward the camera, trying to dissuade the photographer, a young Calvin, from photographing. Calvin’s mother was left-handed.
Loose paperclips skittered in the bottom of the box. Calvin plucked up one at a time and dropped them in his wake. He fished out a few final clips that had fallen into the box’s seams or under the flaps. He collapsed the box and discarded it in a garbage can. His reflection did the same.
Calvin rose later than usual in the morning. He didn’t shower. It took half an hour of searching through the depths of the closet to find a pair of athletic shorts, blue with three white stripes on each side, the fabric sort of shiny. His one pair of sneakers, purchased at the same time as the shorts, when his belly first started to show the distension of middle age, back in the era of taking yoga classes, had never been worn and didn’t fit right. He only had black socks, so he wore none.
The sun buzzed in a cloudless sky, midsummer, bright and hot. The mirror shimmered like melting silver. Calvin walked down its length, dragging his fingertips lightly across the surface, streaking long wavering lines. He didn’t bring his eyes to the mirror, didn’t see as his reflection cast the same gaze down at the gray sidewalk. For the first time since the mirror was built, Calvin did not much feel like looking at himself.
He faltered to a stop, almost colliding with a woman standing in the middle of the sidewalk, facing the mirror. She wore sneakers, but not the fancy athletic kind. The hem of her jeans had been scuffed away to white. Tracing up her body, Calvin found more white scuffs in the loose denim, even holes. Plaid flannel unbuttoned over a threadbare T-shirt, printed with the faded pig logo of a grocery store chain. He looked at her face in profile and then at her face in the mirror. She smiled, not at him, but at herself.
“This is my mirror,” said Calvin.
“I’ve seen it so many times from the other side of the street,” said the woman, “but this is the first time I’ve ever crossed over to look into it.”
“What do you see?”
“I see a woman who is looking at me and who is happy to be looking at me. My smile is reflected and I reflect the smile back at the mirror, and so it is reflected back and forth and back and forth again.”
The woman wandered away, glancing at the mirror from time to time. Calvin wondered if that was how he looked on his walk to work each morning. When he once had work to walk to. Was that only yesterday? Calvin thought of a single moment reflected as if in facing mirrors, stretched to infinity by repetition. Did the mirror double his life, his reflection earning him an extra second for every second spent, or did the doubling cut the time in half, using up his life twice as fast? The woman took the crosswalk at Harding Street, peeling away from the mirror as easily as turning a page in Esquire. Calvin didn’t know whether he watched the woman or her reflection. She was gone before he could sort it out.
Calvin looked at himself. His hair flopped and his skin sagged and the line of his mouth carved a gray rainbow above his thick-stubbled chin. He reached up to the reflection of the crease beside his nose. His reflection reached with him. He tapped the mirror, triggering a tremble that spread away in both directions. The shaking grew more pronounced as it coursed into the distance, the far end of the mirror catching the light then losing it. Calvin thought of a lighthouse. He had never seen a lighthouse in person. He had only ever seen the shore in glossy photographs.
The distant flashing called to him. He walked toward it. As it faded, he tapped the mirror again, his fingers meeting his fingers’ reflection. When he was a boy, his mother had once tried to talk to him about touching himself. The conversation had been so awkward that he vowed never to do it. But it wasn’t so bad, maybe better than only looking. He brought his face to the mirror and pressed his forehead to his forehead, cheek to bristled cheek. Twin bursts of condensation bellowed from his nostrils as he nuzzled his reflection’s nose with his own. The surface of the glass chilled his skin, and he wondered what the reflection felt. When he pulled his face away, a thin slick of slime remained on the glass.
A car approached, headlights on even though it was daytime and if there was a cloud in the sky it was not enough to concern the sun. Streetscapes reflected in the windshield of the car, the facades of buildings warped by the curved glass. On the other side of the street, the car appeared in pane after pane of the broad shop windows. Calvin saw himself in those same reflections, different windows showing him at different angles, shadowy clones. A dozen Calvins, two dozen. He had always thought of himself as taller. He looked for the true Calvin among the reflections, the one with above average height, the one that looked like how he thought he looked when he didn’t look too hard in the mirror. The car sped in from multiple directions at once. Several of the Calvins faced mortal danger.
Calvin staggered back into the street. A horn bleated and tires squealed. The car, the real one, swerved around Calvin, up over the curb, slashing black smudges on the yellow paint. If the car had not struck a fire hydrant, breaking it off and erupting a blossom of white water, it would have impacted the mirror full force. Instead, the corner of the bumper nudged the glass, like Calvin had pressed his nose there just moments before. The mirror shuddered, far end flashing, a beacon beckoning Calvin toward it, but he stayed frozen in the center of the road. The mirror’s motion abated. It reflected back a scene as still as a photograph.
The car’s driver got out, a young man with gelled hair and an expression between shock and anger, and looked at Calvin in the mirror. Calvin’s reflection locked stares with the driver, and then turned to the car. The manufacturer’s logo had been smashed in by the hydrant, but it was the kind car that looked the same whatever company made it, vaguely car-shaped, inoffensive. It was the kind of car that you were supposed to buy when you were just starting out as an adult. Calvin would have driven something similar if he didn’t walk everywhere. Or if he knew how to drive.
The driver bent down in front of his car, tracing the contours of the dent with his fingertips, as if trying to coax the plastic back to its undamaged state. He turned to the mirror. The dent appeared there as an opposite, a shape that if combined with the real dent might undo the damage. The driver reached his hand toward the mirror.
“No!” screamed Calvin.
His voice echoed back and forth between the buildings and the mirror and down the long corridor of the avenue. When the echo died, no noise rose to replace it except the gushing white noise of the once hydrant, now hole in the ground. The driver remained by the mirror, arm outstretched, but he did not move, did not seem capable of movement. Calvin exhaled.
A small starburst of cracks shot out from the point where the bumper touched the glass, and then the shatter-mark exploded in an instant down the whole length of the mirror. A sound like every plate falling from every cupboard in the city. Calvin’s image broke into pieces that did not align. One half of his nose abutted his eye. The other eye was several inches below his chin. His mouth, frowning, was whole and contained within a single triangular section of the mirror.
Behind his reflection, streets ended abruptly in open sky. Doors for one place led into another. The tops of buildings, ornamented with little flourishes that Calvin had never before looked up to notice, dotted the sky like stone-cut clouds.
The mirror shuddered, a starling testing its wings, and then it collapsed, raining down giant shards, the destruction spreading like a breaking wave. Glass shattered against the sidewalk into grains as fine as sand. The sound like splashing water. Calvin thought of the beach at sunset. Calvin had only ever seen the beach in photographs.
One large shard fell point-first on the driver, almost splitting him in two. The mirrored side twinned the driver’s visible half into a whole. His body tipped over, like a wet pillow, and the matte gray of the mirror’s reverse showed the unreflected reality. Blood welled up around the edges of the wound, but less than Calvin would have expected.
Calvin looked back to the city—the real city, not its reflection—and he saw that it too was breaking apart. Buildings collapsed and roads crumbled, and the sky fell in great chunks of blue. The sun burst apart, its fragments like yellow birds dying midflight.
Calvin tried to hold it all together, even as he felt fissures scalpel throughout his own body. He closed his eyes and concentrated hard on what he wanted to see when he opened them.
ZACH POWERS lives and writes in Northern Virginia. His debut story collection, Gravity Changes, won the BOA Short Fiction Prize.